Who would have thought that so many people would resent manatees? They are apparently the only marine mammal that is controversial. Nobody hates whales or despises dolphins, right? Seals remind us of big-eyed puppy dogs. Only the manatee inspires human derision, which is odd since all they do is float around and eat river grass. They kill nothing to survive. Their closest living relatives are elephants. And who hates elephants?
Yet when we posted a simple news story about manatee mortality, the haters came out. The headline was “Good News/Bad News: More Manatees Than Ever, But Boats Are Killing More,” and the story, promoted on Facebook, merely reported the fact that the 89 boat-related manatee deaths over the past year was much higher than the five-year average of 55. The source of the story were Florida scientists whose job it is to keep track of the state’s wildlife.
To be fair, most of the Facebook commentary was sympathetic to the manatee, who suffer from a chronic failure to avoid spinning propellers. Many posted sad-face emojis; you know, the one with the single tear drop.
But, in defense of boating, a surprising number voiced personal “scientific” theories, rewrote Florida history, spewed vitriol or suggested putting “sea cow” on the menu. (Yuck, yuck—how droll.)
“Manatees are good at two things. Wiping out sea grass beds and causing unnecessary no wake zones,” one poster wrote.
Another said: “Well, since these now useless animals are non-indigenous to Florida because they were brought here from the West Indies to eat sea grass, which now there isn't enough of, screw them!”
The second guy was voicing a discredited but persistent theory that because the creature is called a “West Indian manatee,” it must be some kind of invasive species to Florida. In fact, prehistoric manatee fossils are common in Florida, and the earliest Spanish colonists took note of how the native peoples hunted them. Way back in the 17th century a Pope decreed who could kill manatees, and when and where.
A man identifying himself as “Bilge Pump” wasn’t buying any of that history stuff:
“That is a lie perpetuated by tree huggers,” Pump wrote. “They were imported from the West Indies Islands to feed the railroad workers building Flagler's rail from Keys North. Kept alive in pens. Due to lack of refrigeration until time to butcher one for meals. Do You see COWS roaming streets and Highways? NO! Because they are fenced for their own safety. I support relocating them to the Everglades canals to keep clean of vegetational blockage at the same time minimizing encounters with as many boats.”
Wait a minute. Henry Flagler introduced the railroad and manatees to Florida? Normally, I am content to let the rabble bicker amongst themselves, but this time I could not resist.
“Let me get this straight,” said I to Pump. “Rather than herd cows down from central Florida or even ship them in cattle cars to the terminus of the railway already built, Flagler sent ships to capture live manatees, keep them alive and serve them up gradually to the workforce. Effing brilliant!”
Apparently, Flagler’s railway men failed to eat all their meat, I should have added. And wow. Just wow.